Assimilated Mennonite conversations with other faith groups increased considerably in the 1960s. These Mennonites began to send observers to events sponsored by the World Council of Churches and similar ecumenical organizations in 1961. A series of Believers Church conferences that included Baptists, Disciples of Christ, Pentecostals, and others began in the 1960s and accelerated during the 1970s and later.
After Vatican II (1962–65), conversations began between Mennonites and the Catholic Church. Mennonite graduate students began to study at Catholic institutions like Notre Dame University in Indiana and St. Michaels College in Toronto.
Intentional dialogue between Mennonites and Catholics began in the late 1990s; perhaps the best-known forum was Bridgefolk, “a movement of sacramentally-minded Mennonites and peace-minded Roman Catholics,” established for shared conversation and worship at Saint John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, and other locations. These meetings often included Ontario Mennonite participants.
In more years there have specific academic conversations with Lutherans.
Mennonite academics also began to hold dialogues with non-Christian faith groups. Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) had worked in relief efforts in Muslim-majority countries for years. In the early 1990s MCC carried out relief work in Iran after devastating earthquakes in that country. MCC then began to initiate student exchanges with Iran.
The Shia (Shi’ah) seminary in Qom, Iran, the world’s largest, has about 50,000 students. The Imam Khomeini Institute, which is attached to the Qom seminary, offers graduate-level training in the humanities to a small number of people who are already imams, or Islamic clerics. The Institute also sought wider dialogue, particularly with Christian theologians.
Under a formal agreement, Mennonite Central Committee sent Christian scholars to Qom for two-year terms. The Khomeini Institute particularly stressed that it wanted scholars who were very strong in their Christian faith because their purpose was to explain Christianity to Iranian students. In exchange, the Imam Khomeini Institute sponsored two Iranian students to come to Canada and to earn doctorates at the Toronto School of Theology.
These exchanges led to a series of academic conversations between Mennonite and Shia Muslim academics beginning in 2002, initially at the Toronto School of Theology, with the deep involvement of Conrad Grebel College theologian, A. James Reimer. Quite remarkably this first dialogue took place when the events of 2001’s 9/11 attacks remained fresh in North American minds.
The first conference addressed “The Challenge of Modernity”; the second, held in 2006 in Qom, focused on “Revelation and Authority.” The papers for the first two conferences were published in the Fall 2003 and Winter 2006 issues of the Conrad Grebel Review.
The third dialogue in May 2007 took place at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, and attracted considerable media coverage. Macleans magazine raised an alarm in an article that portrayed naive Mennonites meeting with thugs, and protesters threatened to overwhelm the event.
Although all of the Muslim scholars attending the 2007 conference had doctorates from schools in North America or Britain, opponents tried to get Canadian authorities to deny them visas. According to Macleans, opponents contended that the Khomeini Institute “[was] a training ground for the Islamic regime’s most repressive elements.”
Representatives of MCC and Conrad Grebel invited the protesters to a meeting on the evening of May 23 to express their concerns. Arli Klassen, then executive director of MCC (Ontario) recalled, “They felt that if we knew about the human rights abuses in Iran then we would automatically cancel the conference. They were shocked to discover that we do know about the abuses, and we were intending to carry on with having the dialogue.”
Riot police from Toronto were brought in and attendees remember police stationed on the roof of the college’s academic building. The initial public meeting was canceled in the face of protesters shouting down the speakers. (See Canadian Mennonite coverage and an article by Jim Coggins in CanadianChristianity.com for more detailed commentary on the event.)
Ultimately police action was not required, and the formal conversations continued the following day as scheduled. The event at Conrad Grebel took place eight months after Mennonite Central Committee had facilitated another controversial meeting at the United Nations in New York between North American church leaders and then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The essays from the third dialogue were published in 2010 as On Spirituality: Essays from the Third Shii Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue.
Despite the 2007 controversy, further dialogues took place: the fourth in Qom, Iran, in 2009 and the fifth in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2011 without incident. The papers from these conferences were published as Peace and Justice: Essays from the Fourth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue and On Being Human: Essays From The Fifth Shi’i Muslim Mennonite Christian Dialogue. The sixth dialogue took place in Qom, Iran in 2014. The seventh dialogue is scheduled for Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba in 2017.
Inter-faith consultations are a preoccupation of highly assimilated Mennonites only. Other Mennonite groups regard them as having no value and possibly dangerous in compromising Mennonite understandings of faith.
To learn more about Ontario Mennonite history, read In Search of Promised Lands.